Putting Some Air on Their Chests: Masculinity and Movement in Competitive Air Guitar

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While white men in the US and parts of Europe are often described as being ineffectual dancers who are not "in touch with their bodies," they do respond physically to music, if not primarily in ways generally described as dance. Among rock music fans, bodily response to music often takes the form of air guitai; a type of performance that resembles dance in its use of rhythm, steps, and even choreography Since 1996, competitive air guitar has emerged as an international phenomenon, spreading from Oulu, Finland, to more than two dozen countries. Partly an ironic exaggeration of hypermasculine "cock rock" conventions and partly the heart-felt tribute of rock fans, successful air guitar performances balance silliness with sincerity. Although competition is still dominated by white males, air guitarists question typical rock constructions of masculinity and race through humor and irony. This paper draws on field research conducted at 2009 championships in Germany and Finland and numerous interviews to explore the relationships between masculinity movement, and musical knowledge in air guitar performance.

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In this article, I focus on ethnomusicological and popular music studies’ examinations of Western popular music cultures, and provide a critique of some of their methods. Further, my main aim is not to propose a new method, but to suggest a re-emphasis of some of the fundamental ethnographic approaches in studying Western popular music cultures. These include participatory observation, grounded ethnography, materialism, thick description, and cultural relativism. To substantiate these arguments, I examine my own ethnographic research of American DIY (“do-it-yourself”) venues and scenes as an example of a participatory research of living and touring with DIY participants and studying their everyday lives. I recount my fieldwork methods and experiences and demonstrate how the focus on non-musical and private aspects of American DIY music cultures can produce a better understanding of their musical and public sides. Finally, I also argue how the proposed methodological re-evaluation can help to decolonize music studies.